From having worked on the customer service side of the job as the Director of Customer Service at ACCA, to now managing talent and people at ACCA on a global level, in her role of Executive Director, People, Julie Hotchkiss has seen the accounting world transform radically. From the stereotype of having to number crunch and pore over books, the accounting profession now requires skills such as data analytics, creative thinking, an understanding of AI and Automation, and an overview of cybersecurity measures as well.
In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Julie Hotchkiss, Executive Director, People, ACCA, shares her insights into the world of work and skills, the skills gap facing the APAC region, and how talent leaders can help bridge this gap.
Can you share an experience where you’ve had to unlearn, relearn, and upskill yourself in order to continue to remain relevant? What would you advise other HR professionals to do when it comes to reskilling themselves?
I studied Business and Management which proved to be a good foundation since I wanted to get into the business world. Having worked in various sectors such as insurance, telecoms, the public sector, and even since joining ACCA, I’ve had the opportunity to fulfill various roles. At ACCA, I’ve been working in market-facing roles, interacting with members, partners, students etc. The trend that I see at present is that skills have become just as important as knowledge, especially in today’s fast-paced world where employees are choosing to switch careers more often.
Knowledge can be built on-the-go. In today’s environment, you can acquire knowledge anytime as per the requirement of the job. However, skills get transferred from one job to the other. Skills such as leadership, communication, the ability to analyze and think strategically, have been core to all the jobs that I’ve done. The knowledge that we have today would most likely become irrelevant in five years. The ability to learn has been the most instrumental skill.
The speed of change might continue to transform, however, the skills that are acquired in one job remain relevant as you move from role to role. In my experience, the key is to focus on the skills aspect of work and to be unafraid to take on new challenges, even if you don’t have the experience or the ‘knowledge’ about the job role, yet.
I would advise leaders, employees, and employers to focus on the core skills and brainstorm on how those can be transferred to the new roles.
With global trends changing the way we conceptualize work, workplace, and workforce, how can CEOs and CHROs create flexible organizations and to set a learning agenda to re-skill talent to adapt to change?
As far as the CEOs and CHROs are concerned, the most important aspect is to understand the overall journey of the organization and the future strategy that the company is going to pursue. The CHROs have a very important role to play in thinking about how the organisation will deliver on its strategy: the structure of the organization--whether it is a flexible and agile company or is it a hardwired organization that is not ready for change. These factors can have a big impact on the effectiveness of implementation and delivery of the strategy.
The next thing to understand is the culture and the particular ways of working in the organisation and how these need to be changed or enhanced to deliver the strategy. The aim of many of today’s CHRO is to inculcate the culture of flexibility so that the organisation can be more ready for the future with the skills and organisational capabilities that would be required tomorrow. It is crucial that CHROs ask the CEOs and the management to consider what ways of working will help the organisation be more effective and the impact of any change.
The principles of the IT sector where agile working has been implemented extensively can be successfully transferred and applied across organizations in different sectors. Bringing teams together to solve a problem, bringing people from diverse disciplines together for an innovation, to review processes, is all possible through an agile workframe.
The need of the hour is to move away from focusing on succession planning and to move towards building robust talent pools. When the organization as a whole moves towards creating talent pools, there is a greater opportunity to focus on the key skills required in the company that can actually make a difference. I would sincerely encourage fellow CHROs to think about the broader talent pool and invest in the development of these talent pools.
It always circles back to the types of capabilities that an organization needs to build in order to deliver the strategy. These capabilities could range from data analytics’ skills, deep leadership within the organization or even project delivery. It is precisely why, the first step is to understand the strategy and take that into the capability building strategy.
In your opinion, what are the major drivers of change on a global level in the world of work and people?
The biggest driver of change has to be technology which is changing the way we work and live. It is changing the way humans do almost anything and everything and that is precisely the reason why jobs are changing at a rapid pace. The economy is moving away from jobs that are essentially repeatable tasks. Automation, AI, and rapid process automation is replacing these repeatable tasks thus freeing up the brain space of the workforce to engage in thinking about analysis, innovation and strategy more than just implementing what is told.
Regulation is another major driver of change. As data and technology integrates into the workplace, there are new challenges facing the corporate world such as managing, storing and using data. So this means that regulation is driving us to think and behave in a different way. As HR leaders, we must be attuned to the employees’ behaviors and take the necessary measures to meet the requirements as stipulated by legislation and ensuring that all the practices are ethical and legal--especially in a field like that of accounting wherein data security is of primary importance.
Another driver of change is the changing persona of the consumer. As a society that is a part of the social media culture with various kinds of technology available at their fingertips, employees expect the same level of transparency at the workplace. Whether it be employee feedback mechanisms or changes in regulations or updates in the business, in this digital age, both employers and employees expect a certain level of transparency and openness.
How have the demands on professional accountants transformed as the profession also undergoes a digital revolution? What are the skills that will be required to meet these changes and demands?
The role of an accountant is being changed by technology. Accountants now have the opportunity to focus on adding value as the repeatable tasks get increasingly automated. As part of our professional insights work, we’ve interviewed more than 2000 C-suite executives and asked them what they wanted from their accountants in the future. More and more CXOs have told us that the technical and ethical skills are essential. But they also want to see the softer skills that really add value to the organization - centered around creativity and finding creative solutions to challenges. Emotional intelligence is also a skill that is expected of accountants because the mindset has shifted from just crunching numbers to conducting in-depth analysis and helping the C-suite make decisions. Communicating what the numbers mean and what the implications of those numbers would be for the organization, is also the onus of the modern-day accountant.
What’s the number one job skill that the next generation will need to thrive at work?
The number one skill that the next generation cannot do without is the ability to learn on a continuous basis. That is the key skill that will allow professionals to remain relevant for the rest of their careers. There are lots of studies that show that many of the jobs of today would not exist in the future. A curiosity to learn something new and taking responsibility for your own development is going to be key. Reflecting on what you’ve learned, reflecting on failure, and developing the mindset of being open to new things and being unafraid of taking the initiative to undertake unknown challenges is going to be instrumental for the next generation to become successful in the future.
How does the future of work look for accounting as a profession?
The open access to data can enrich the accounting profession’s contribution to the business. Technology enables us all, including accountants to focus less on repetitive tasks and focus more on creative thinking. It gives us the opportunity to innovate and to think about new business models that can add value to the organization.
When we focus on the talent landscape in the APAC region, what is your take on the skills’ deficit that the region is facing as we embark upon a journey into the future of work?
There are several inherent similarities between India and the APAC region when it comes to the skills deficit. It always comes down to the employability skills or the skills that make people productive and effective in the workplace. In Asia, there is a supply of talent but a shortage of skills, in terms of producing professional accountants fast enough to catch up with the demand and growth of the country.
The skills that need to be inculcated include the softer skills such as the ability to build relationships, to analyze and present the information in a compelling manner, and the ability to communicate effectively; these are the qualities that are going to be in-demand going forward. The gaps are primarily related to the professional skills vs. possessing the technical know-how.
Ethical behavior is a core skill or personality trait for professional accountants. As the world of work becomes increasingly digital, how can accounting professionals ensure that ethics and trust are extended across different aspects of work?
Ethics and professionalism are at the heart of ACCA’s qualification. That’s because we believe it is vital for accountants to be trusted. And this trust comes from acting with integrity and professionalism. We were the first professional body to offer an ethics and professional skills module in our qualification as early as 2008 – students have to take this module.
Ethics and trust in our digital age is therefore vital. The rise of digital poses new complexities around protecting the data, the manner in which computers are programmed to process the data, maintaining compliance with the regulators, and the ways in which this data is shared and explained. The role of the accountant of the future is to question and prepare for multiple scenarios where they are proactively thinking about enhancing the business practices in a way that is ethical in this technological age of information and data. Curiosity about cybersecurity and protecting consumer data is a crucial ingredient of an accountant’s toolkit, as they enter the data-driven digital age of 2020.